The Survival of Education

Against the Current, No. 134, May/June 2008

Peter Olson

Letters to A Young Teacher
By Jonathan Kozol
Random House, 2007, 304 pages,
$19.95 hardcover, $12.95 paper.

I REMEMBER READING Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities as a student activist, when becoming a teacher was an abstract and somewhat romanticized idea floating around my head. I was moved by the politically sharp but also deeply humanizing way in which Kozol documented how institutional racism and class inequality shape the experiences of students in American schools, a reality that all of us who have been educated in this country have experienced first-hand in one way or another.

A few years down the road, I find myself working my way through my fifth year teaching at an urban California high school, a thought provoking time to pick up Kozol’s latest — Letters to A Young Teacher, published in 2007.

In a series of letters to Francesca, a first-year Boston elementary school teacher, Kozol explores many dimensions of life inside the United States’ perpetually struggling public school system. Through the letters, we get a sense of the semi-fictional Francesca’s emerging identity as a teacher. But more than this, the letters are a vehicle for Kozol to share insights from his decades of experience as a classroom teacher, mentor, and activist critic of education policy.

At the heart of the book is a sincere belief in the democratic promise of public education, and an insistence that we celebrate and honor the amazing kids that walk into our classrooms every day. Kozol doesn’t pull any punches in his critique of the current trajectory of education policy, but he doesn’t romanticize the past either — the stories he offers from his days as a new teacher in Boston in the 1960’s should be more than enough to reinforce the message that our problems didn’t start with “No Child Left Behind.”

Early on, he reminds us that the people who are responsible for most of the mainstream public discourse on education lack the one thing that would give them any credibility in the first place — experience in the classroom. “I sometimes think,” he writes, “that every education writer, every would-be education expert, and every politician who pontificates, as many do so condescendingly, about the ‘failings’ of the teachers in the front lines of our nations’ public schools ought to be obliged to come into a classroom once a year and teach the class, not just for an hour with the TV cameras watching but for an entire day, and find out what it’s like.” (3)

Probably most teachers have shared this very thought, but this doesn’t change the fact that the loudest voices in the field of education come from bureaucrats and “consultants” with little or no relationship to students. This would simply be annoying if, in addition to being loud, these voices were not also politically dominant, creating policies that strip teachers of their ability to tailor instruction to meet the needs of their students.

As Kozol points out, “The overdetermined lesson plans now commonly in use in inner-city neighborhoods, which are often written word for word from scripted programs that are handed to the teacher and intended to keep children on an absolutely straight line to the destination of the next high-stakes exam, leave little time for teachers to pay close attention to those children who won’t give the answers we are told we must elicit from them or who, even more unpardonably, ignore our pre-planned questions and insist on asking better questions of their own.” (50)

A curriculum rich in critical thinking, not to mention curiosity and wonder, is too often a casualty of the relentless focus on standardized testing. And of course, like everything else in our society, this approach to education must be packaged and marketed to all “stakeholders,” including teachers.

In a hilarious chapter titled “Beware the Jargon Factory,” Kozol acknowledges Francesca’s frustration with the “gibberish” being dished out at the latest “professional development” workshop she has been required to attend “This kind of jargon,” he says, “which relies on the pumping up of any simple notion by tacking on a fancy-sounding prefix or a needless extra syllable, infests the dialogue of public education nowadays like a strange syntactic illness that induces many educators to believe that they have to imitate this language if they want to have a place in the discussion.” (89) Ultimately, much of this “Education-Speak” has the effect (and goal, perhaps) of undermining teachers’ confidence in their own, experience-based approaches and solutions.

Surviving Education

Letters to a Young Teacher does not aim to present a fleshed-out program for school reform — after all, the priority for most teachers in their first couple years is to learn to navigate (and survive) the realities of their individual school sites, whatever those may be.

Kozol attempts to counteract the strong tendency towards demoralization which underlies the crisis in new teacher retention in most urban school districts by encouraging teachers to listen to their instincts and, perhaps more importantly, to listen to their students. Teachers should not be overly fearful of rocking the boat, he argues, but should take time to get to know the communities in which they are working, including the sometimes difficult task of developing meaningful relationships with parents.

This is especially important in situations in which there is a gap in race, social class or culture between teachers and students. Kozol manages to model for new teachers a delicate balance between a bold irreverence and a gentle humility, while being honest enough to include examples of moments in his own career when he struggled to achieve this balance in practice.

I particularly appreciated Kozol’s urging to young teachers to avoid “cliquishness” and make an effort to “take advantage of the years of rich experience and accumulated wisdom about children that the most effective older teachers can convey to them.” (35) As someone who has been mentored by a number of veteran teachers in the classroom as well as on the picket line, I see this advice as indispensable.

The Threats to Education

In addition to his criticism of the testing-driven curriculum of today’s schools, Kozol comments on what he sees as some of the other priority areas for political resistance and organizing — in particular, resegregation and privatization. In his discussion of the latter, he characterizes vouchers as “the single worst, most dangerous idea to enter education discourse” in his lifetime. (132)

Clearly, voucher schemes represent a frontal assault on the very idea of public education. It seems unfortunate, however, that Kozol dedicates so much of his discussion of privatization on vouchers when, in fact, they have gained little political traction in most states. What seems more pressing, at least from my vantage point in California, is the role of charter schools in pushing the privatization agenda.

Although Kozol mentions charters at several points and warns against the allure of schools that are “admittedly… sometimes quite impressive schools but, in the larger scheme of things, are little less than boutique institutions,” readers may be left wanting more of a developed dialogue on this issue. (39) Because charter schools self-identify as “public schools” and because they are successful at recruiting many progressive young teachers, the charter discussion is a much thornier one, and in need of a careful and clear-headed analysis from longtime radical educators such as Kozol.

As for resegregation, the topic of Kozol’s 2005 book The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling In America, although the term “diversity” has become a staple of education discourse and districts pay lip service to the importance of “civil rights curriculum,” in many places schools are as segregated as ever. In fact the “percentage of black children who now go to integrated public schools has fallen to its lowest level since the death of Dr. King in 1968,” a fact that appears completely off the radar of the mainstream media.

Francesca’s Voice?

Overall, Letters to a Young Teacher is a thoughtful and passionate book that has something to offer to a wide variety of readers interested in education. Perhaps the book’s biggest weakness is that we do not get to hear Francesca’s own voice. Our impressions of her experience are entirely based on Kozol’s usually glowing affirmations of what she is doing in the classroom.

At times it seems that Kozol’s Francesca is too perfect, asking all the right questions, drawing on all the right instincts. “I’ve been thinking,” he writes, “that I should no longer speak of you as a ‘beginning’ teacher. You seem so comfortable and self-possessed by now that, even though you say you still have much to learn, you already have that sense of earned authority that I described in speaking about season teachers… And because your principal shares many of your views on education policies, I think she’s helped empower you…”

Kozol goes on to acknowledge that “many other teachers who confide in me… are not in situations as convivial or as empowering as yours… The risk these teachers face of being fired if they deviate… induces them too often to suppress their discontent and to accommodate…”

I found myself wondering how first-year teachers who are feeling these pressures and contradictions more acutely than Francesca would feel as they read of her “comfortable and self-possessed” new teacher identity, and also why Kozol felt that series of letters to a teacher in Francesca’s situation was the best vehicle for discussing the issues he sets out to tackle in the book.

In a welcome twist in the Afterword, we find that this was in fact Francesca’s own concern after reading the Letters manuscript. At last, we hear her own voice, and it sounds familiar to anyone who has been through the first-year teacher experience.

“I went through a time,” she says, “when I felt very vulnerable, and fallible, and I think you need to make this clear because all teachers will go through these periods of insecurity, and they’ll recognize when they have made mistakes and temporarily lose their confidence. If you leave this out, it gives the incorrect impression that I was, right from the starting gate, one of those ‘super-teachers’ that we used to joke about who allegedly turn everything they touch to gold. We both know that that wasn’t so. It’s never so. “(247)

That Kozol includes these words in the published version of the book, and goes on to speculate about why he may have skewed his portrayal of Francesca in a certain direction, is itself a testament to the tone of honesty and openness that make Letters to a Young Teacher such a pleasure in the first place.

ATC 134, May-June 2008